Mohamed Katana: why I moved to the Belarus league

By Lynne WachiraBBC Sport Africa
Mohamed Katana
Katana has already had a multi-club career

It has become one of the sporting trivia facts of the Covid age - that Belarus is the only country in Europe where football is continuing. And yet, with the virus taking hold across the world and lockdown measures ramping up on every continent, young Kenyan player Mohamed Katana decided to move there there.

Katana joined Smolevichy-STI of the Vysheyshaya Liga in early April. The 20-year old attacking midfielder from Kenyan Premier League side Bandari FC is the newest arrival to the 16-team Belarusian Premier League, having signed a two-and-a-half year contract.

Despite Belarus being one of only three other leagues continuing - Burundi, Tajikistan and Nicaragua being the others - Katana told BBC Sport Africa that "the joy of playing in Europe surpasses the danger."

''This opportunity is more than dream come true and the fact that it came at a time when the world is going through such a difficult time is a sign that my future is bright," he added.

"Some players are stuck at home while I just restarted my European career. It's a big deal.''

Vodka and saunas

Mohamed Katana training with Panathinaikos
Katana trained with Panathinaikos - but could never get a contract

On the face of it, Katana's move is one that raises a lot of questions and seems risky.

Belarus confirmed its first case of coronavirus case on 28 February, and despite the rise in number of infections, the country's president, Alexander Lukashenko, has continued to downplay the threats posed by the virus.

He has urged his citizens to continue with life as normal, telling them to ''drink vodka and visit saunas" to combat the virus.

Unlike most global leaders, Lukashenko is yet to introduce social distancing as a measure. He even attended a hockey match at the end of last month while fans are still allowed into the stadium to attend matches.

Former Nigeria Captain, John Mikel Obi last month left Turkish league side Trabzonspor because the country's league was, at the time, continuing.

Katana conceded he did not believe his new league should be continuing.

"There is a side of me that's very scared to be going out to play, to be honest," he said.

"I don't think the league should be going on. But I am trusting God to protect me from coronavirus."

Although Katana is still young at just 20, he has already bounced around a number of good teams.

He honed his football skills at the Aspire international academy in Qatar and Senegal between 2013 and 2017, and has had a number of challenges in his quest to play professional football in Europe.

He left the academy in October 2017, joining Portugal's Sporting Lisbon - but ended up signing a one-and-a-half year contract with Leixoes SC, playing in Portugal's 2nd division.

Belgian side Royal Antwerp wanted to sign him in July 2018, but his travel documentation took so long to come through that by the time it did, the transfer window had closed.

Big ambitions

Mohamed Katana
Katana had a brief spell in Portuguese football

He also had a trial with Greek giants Panthanaikos but this too ended in failure as it coincided with their being banned from European competitions and a consequent struggle for them to sign foreign players.

"I waited for eight months," he said.

"I played friendly matches with them but it was not to be. They had all sorts of problems.''

It was time to yet again pack his bags and return home.

"That was the hardest thing that I have ever done," he said.

"Panathanaikos fans had already loved me. I left home at a young age armed with a dream of making it big in Europe after my time in the football academy and there I was, going back home with a shattered dream.''

Katana is a first-born child in a family of six children, and his first interaction with football was when his dad would take him to the beach a few kilometres from their Kisauni home in Kenya's coastal City, Mombasa.

"My dad used to tell me I would be a great footballer," he said.

"He would watch me play at the beach, as a small-scale businessman, he sacrificed everything to see me through school and to make sure I played football.''

After six tough months last year without a club, Katana signed for Kenya Premier League club Bandari in September 2019. He only played one match before flying out in December for training in Europe under his agent - and he said he now feels settled in Belarus, though he has big ambitions.

"Now I feel settled, my dream is to become the best African player playing in Europe, and join the class of Champions league winners," he said.

"My family also looks up to me. I want my parents to never lack anything in life - they have been there for me.''